The Bosnia IST Story
Greetings in the name of the Living God! I invite you read about this ministry and prayerfully consider helping us bring healing, offering hope and building peace.
The break-up of Yugoslavia
Throughout the early 1990s, the former country of Yugoslavia began to split into several new countries, more or less along older national and ethnic boundaries. Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in early 1992, sparking a brutal civil war which lasted into early 1996. The three major ethnic groups in Bosnia are the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks. The Serbs and Croats are Christian (Orthodox and Roman Catholic, respectively); the Bosniaks are Muslim.
This is a country and people of contrasts. The countryside is beautiful, but scars from the war are all around. There is forward movement toward becoming a stable, healthy country, yet many cannot let go of the past. The people are generous, hospitable and loving, yet many are still ruled by their fear, grief, and even hatred. The children are so loving and beautiful, but their wounds from the war run so deep.
New Jersey Synod Bosnia IST Ministry
The New Jersey Synod began its ministry to Bosnia in 1999 when the Synod’s Commission on Youth Ministry (predecessor body to the Youth Ministry Mission Team) heard newly arrived Youth Ministry Specialist Jason Reed speak of his previous experience leading servant trips to Croatia and Bosnia. The Commission asked; “Can we do that?” The results of that question lie before you.
In 2000 the Synod held it first International Servant Trip (IST) to Croatia and Bosnia. We sent 11 people from 5 congregations in New Jersey (and 2 from the Metro Washington DC Synod, and 1 Roman Catholic from Ramsey, NJ). This first Travel Team held 5 Friendship Camps in Bosnia and several Bible Camps in Lutheran Congregations in Croatia. Friendship Camps are day-long camps held in orphanages and schools for children ages 10-13 (though we get younger and older children as well). At the Camps we lead cooperative games, do diversity training, provide art and music therapy, and offer as much fun and love as possible.
In 2001 we returned to Bosnia and Croatia with a Travel Team of 27. In 2002 the New Jersey Synod became a Companion Synod to the Lutheran Church in Croatia and split the trip - one team and trip to Bosnia and one to Croatia.
As a result of our continued positive presence in Bosnia, schools for Friendship Camps in new towns continued to open up for us. In 2004 we were invited into 6 new communities, 4 of which were in Republik Srpska, the Serb portion of Bosnia. This was a critical shift, allowing us access to children in communities that have few resources and little interaction with the USA and the West.
To respond to this increased ministry opportunity, in 2005 we began sending a North and South Team to Bosnia, allowing us to offer 16 Friendship Camps each year. As the years go by, we continued to be invited into communities that experienced some of the worst the war had to offer: Srebrenica, where the largest massacre of the war took place; Kozarac, home to the infamous Trnopolje Death Camp; and so on.
Since its first Bosnia IST in 2000 there have been 177 Travel Team members, young and old, from 39 congregations in the New Jersey Synod (along with people from 7 other ELCA Synods and several other faith communities) sent to Bosnia to bring healing, hope and peace to the children, communities and country of Bosnia. 55 Travel Team members have served more than one year!
To date we have held 167 Friendship Camps, directly serving over 24,000 children (no telling how many of those children have attended camp more than once)! We continue to be the only ELCA presence and, for all intents and purposes, the only Lutheran presence in this country.
What We Do
Each summer we have the privilege of serving around children at Friendship Camps we hold throughout the country. We play, sing, dance, explore peace and laugh together. We share meals and stories and hopes and dreams and tears with them. We teach and learn about peace and reconciliation together. We share the love of God with them, and, in turn, find ourselves looking into the face of Jesus.
We visit, serve and praye in churches and mosques, schools and orphanages, homes and restaurants. We walk the grounds of concentration camps, cemeteries, memorial sites, mass grave sites and identification facilities for human remains recovered from mass graves. The increased tensions in the region in recent years have made the last several trips particularly important and the joy and community that we shared particularly satisfying.
It is hard work - long hours, taxing physical labor, emotionally draining efforts. It is wonderful work - meeting and living with such beautiful, wounded, generous, loving people. And because of the nature of peace-building in such a broken world; it is messy, challenging and incomplete. In other words, it feels like a truly faithful response to Jesus’ call to “Feed my lambs” (John 21).
Thank you for your support, partnership and participation in this ministry. It is good, hard work we are called to do together. And we certainly can only do it together.
Bosnia IST Goals
Our ministry goals continue to be very direct: HEALING, HOPE, PEACE. Although there are countless stories, allow us to briefly share three stories.
Our ministry brings healing: Mark Schulz (Zion, Long Valley) tells of a camp where he saw a young boy sitting alone at lunch. He went over and tried to talk with him - at one point even bringing over an interpreter. By the end of lunch he had yet to illicit a single smile or word. However, at the end of camp as Mark was saying goodbye to some other boys, he felt someone hugging his leg. He looked down and, sure enough, it was that little boy from lunch, who looked up at him and started counting…one, two, three, four…until Mark, laughing, stopped him. One of the school teachers who had been observing this, walked over to Mark and told him that that was the first time anyone at the school had ever heard this boy talk.
Our ministry offers hope: A young girl looked sad as our Friendship Camp in Bihac ended. Bobby Houser, one of our partners in this ministry, walked over to her and asked her what was wrong. “No one cares about me. There is no reason for me to be alive”, she responded. Bobby got out her calendar and flipped it to the following summer and pointed to a date. “This is the day we will be back here next June. I love you. I want to see you here next year.” The following summer our bus pulled up to the school, and who was sitting on the steps, waiting for us? That young girl.
Our ministry builds peace: Jason Reed (St. Paul, Hainesport) was in the Serb village of Sipovo waiting in a bank for them to exchange some of the team money, when a Chetnik (a radical, nationalist Serb) called out to him in serbian, “Why do Americans hate Serbs”, - but he asked it in a very personal way - “why do you hate me?”. Jason responded that he didn’t hate him and that all Americans didn’t hate Serbs. “But you bomb our towns and kill our people”, was the Chetnik’s response. They talked for five minutes, until the money was ready. As Jason left, Vesna, his interpreter (a Baptist Serb from Croatia, if you can believe it) turned to him and said, “Do you know what they are talking about back there (in the bank)? They are questioning everything they thought they knew about Americans; everything they have been told about Americans.” The next year we returned to this town Jason was interviewed on their radio station, and had the opportunity to share why we came back to Sipovo.
Other Aspects of This Ministry
While there are many other aspects of this ministry, four bear mentioning here:
1. Leadership development. We have intentionally provided leadership training for all members of the Travel Team, including extra work with our group leaders. Travel Team members have gone on to serve in many ways. Some examples include:
Lindsay Bonanno (Hope, Freehold) is serving in the Peace Corps in Mali (North West Africa).
Lori Lepelletier (Redeemer, Succasunna), is currently in Mexico on an ELCA Servant-Hunger-Poverty Trip and plans to start seminary in the Fall.
Larissa Kravanja (Nativity, East Brunswick) traveled to South America and Africa with a UN Women’s Organization.
Dan Nelson (Calvary, Cranford) spent a summer in Africa on a humanitarian aid mission.
Jenn Berryann (Holy Communion, Berlin) serves young people as a High School English teacher, Youth Director for her congregation, and Youth Ministry Mission Team Leader.
Susie Wilson (Redeemer, Ramsey) has lead International Servant Trips to Mexico and other servant trips within the United States.
2. Congregational Involvement. Each year members of our congregations spend thousands of hours serving the children of Bosnia through the Home Team projects. They have made thousands of teddy bears, lions, giraffes, monkeys, hug pillows, and more. Their involvement can deepen their understanding of Christian servanthood in the world and increase their awareness of the need for peace and prayer in the world. It can also serve as a springboard for new ministry endeavors. For an example, see the attached note from Roger Knauss (Redeemer, Ramsey) on green paper.
3. Inter-religious. In Bosnia we serve in a very religiously diverse country. While the children we work with are from all the different ethnic and religious backgrounds, our interpreters are primarily (though not exclusively) Muslim. Over the years our relationships with them have developed into ones of deep respect and love. This past summer we brought five of our interpreters home with us to meet our congregations and country, and to help lead several programs at the ELCA National Youth Gathering in San Antonio, Texas. The inter-religious nature of our ministry, particularly in relation to our Bosnian Muslim coordinator and interpreters, is an emphasis of the ELCA, and one which we are exploring new ways to strengthen.
4. The wider church. This Trip is well-known in the ELCA, having been featured in the Lutheran Magazine, in Mosaics, and at the last three ELCA National Youth Gatherings. Consequently, we have become a model for international servant ministry, and have provided advice and training for many other groups and synods. Our ministry also continues to call attention to the need to provide ongoing relief in countries suffering from the after-effects of war, especially to the children.
It has been a great privilege to serve Jesus Christ in the children of Bosnia with and on behalf of the New Jersey Synod. It has served as a valuable model of many generations of the church responding together to Christ’s call to serve those in need - a group of children with whom we have no other connection their our shared humanity.